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1652, σε μια φυλακή στο Λονδίνο:

Η καμπάνα σήμανε την πρώτη πρωινή ώρα. Η βροχή δεν είχε σταματήσει να πέφτει για δύο ηλιακούς κύκλους στην πόλη, και έβρισκε στο φεγγίτη του κελιού την ιδανική δίοδο για να εισέλθει στο σκυθρωπό κατάλυμα του. Οι σταγόνες δημιουργούσαν με τον συνεχή ήχο της πτώσης τους μια νεκρώσιμη ακολουθία, σχημάτιζαν με την πορεία τους μια αντίστροφη σκάλα του Ιακώβ, η οποία μετέφερε τις ικεσίες για ζωή, από τα ουράνια πίσω στον αποστολέα τους. Δεν είχε κάπου αλλού να στραφεί μέσα στην απελπισία του, παρά στην ανώτερη δύναμη, με την ύπαρξη της οποίας είχε γαλουχηθεί, με την πίστη στην οποία είχε ανατραφεί τις τρεις δεκαετίες της ζωής του.

Ο αβάς με το σημαδεμένο χέρι που τον επισκέφθηκε το προηγούμενο βράδυ του είχε υποσχεθεί πως η αθωότητά του, αν ήταν αληθινή, θα έλαμπε σαν αστίλβωτος χρυσός μπροστά στο μεγάλο δικαστή της ζωής και του θανάτου, θα του χάριζε μια θέση δίπλα στο δημιουργό του, απ’ όπου θα μπορούσε να τον υμνεί στο βάθος της αιωνιότητας. Μια αιωνιότητα που του φαινόταν πολύ μακρινή, παρ’ όλο που πλησίαζε όλο και περισσότερο με κάθε πένθιμη κωδωνοκρουσία. Δεν ήθελε να υμνεί κανέναν – τι βλάσφημη σκέψη λίγες ώρες πριν πεθάνει… – ήθελε να συνεχίσει να αναπνέει από τη σπασμένη μύτη του, να συνεχίσει να αγγίζει με τα γεμάτα εγκαύματα χέρια του, να συνεχίσει να σκέφτεται με την κουρελιασμένη από τα βασανιστήρια νόησή του. Τι κι αν το σώμα του είχε πληρώσει βαρύ φόρο στα όργανα των ανακριτών; Ήταν δικό του, παγωμένα ρίγη τον διαπερνούσαν στην ιδέα ότι σε λίγες ώρες θα το έχανε.

Τον ξαναέπιασε το στομάχι του, έπεσε στα γόνατα και προσπάθησε να αποβάλλει τα εναπομείναντα περιεχόμενα του στομαχιού του, να τα αφήσει ως αναθήματα μίσους στις πέτρινες πλάκες του δαπέδου. Δεν τα κατάφερε, ο λαιμός του κόμπιασε, πήγε να καταπιεί πηχτό σάλιο μα τα γδαρμένα τοιχώματα του οισοφάγου δεν το δέχτηκαν. Παντού η απόρριψη. Ήταν σαν η θηλιά να τον είχε σφιχταγκαλιάσει πρόωρα, τόσο ανυπόμονη μέσα στην τελεσίδικη ασπλαχνία της, τόσο αχόρταγη μέσα στην ακόρεστη βουλιμία της για καταδικασμένους λαιμούς. Του κόπηκε η ανάσα, τα χέρια του μάταια πάλεψαν με τον ανύπαρκτο κόμπο.

Συνήλθε, σηκώθηκε, πάτησε με τα γυμνά του πόδια σε μια νεοσχηματισμένη λιμνούλα, έπεσε ξανά, προσπάθησε να συρθεί με τα σημαδεμένα από τις πύρινες λεπίδες του εξεταστή χέρια του. Αποχωρίστηκε το σάλιο του και η όραση σκοτείνιασε, για να αποκαλυφθεί στον οφθαλμό του μυαλού του το ικρίωμα. Άνοιξε γοργά τα μάτια και ούρλιαξε χολωμένος. Δάκρυα κύλησαν στα βρώμικα μάγουλά, ο κόμπος στο στομάχι έγινε ακόμη πιο σφιχτός. Δεν ήθελε να πεθάνει. Όρμηξε στην λιτή αλλά τόσο αφοσιωμένη στο σκοπό της πόρτα και προσπάθησε να τη δαγκώσει με τα σπασμένα υπολείμματα των δοντιών. Ο πόνος αβάσταχτος, αλλά δεν του χάρισε ούτε ρανίδα ηρεμίας.

Η καμπάνα ήχησε την πέμπτη πρωινή. Άκουσε τα βαριά, αυστηρά βήματα των δεσμοφυλάκων να πλησιάζουν την απαραβίαστη θύρα. Άρχισε να κοπανάει ξανά το λίθινο πάτωμα, έσπασε τον ένα του καρπό. Η πόρτα ξεκλείδωσε, άνοιξε. Το φως του πυρσού τον τύφλωσε, η μυρωδιά του καμένου λίπους που χρησίμευε ως καύσιμη ύλη κυριάρχησε στην όσφρησή του. Χέρια δυνατά τον σήκωσαν, οι λαβές τον έσφιγγαν σαν μέγγενες. Τον έσυραν έξω από το κελί, έξω από τα υπόγεια του πύργου, στο πρώτο ρόδισμα του άνεφου ουρανού. Από τη διαδρομή το μυαλό του συγκράτησε ελάχιστα, είχε κλείσει κάθε δίοδο επικοινωνίας με τον εξωτερικό κόσμο, κλειδώθηκε στο αναμάσημα του αισθήματος της απελπισίας και του επερχόμενου τέλους.

Το επόμενο ερέθισμα που αξιολόγησε ήταν τα τελευταία λόγια του δικαστή: «..καταδικάζεσαι σε θάνατο δια απαγχονισμού. Είθε ο Θεός να δείξει έλεος στην ψυχή σου.» Κοίταξε γύρω του και είδε ότι τον είχαν ανεβάσει στην ξύλινη πλατφόρμα της κρεμάλας. Το κοινό του επικείμενου θανάτου του ήτανε μια ντουζίνα περίεργοι, αγουροξυπνημένοι αλήτες, ο δικαστής, οι τρεις φρουροί που τον μετέφεραν, και στην άλλη άκρη της πλατείας ένας μουσικός με έναν αυλό στο χέρι,. Μια θλιβερή κουστωδία για να επευφημήσει το κλείσιμο της αυλαίας του.

Άκουσε από πίσω μια βαριά ανάσα, γύρισε και είδε τον τελευταίο ηθοποιό στο θέατρο σκιών που ήταν η ζωή του. Κεφάλι σκεπασμένο από μαύρη κουκούλα, γκρίζα άχρωμα μάτια, πλαδαρά, γέρικα χέρια, με μια ουλή στην αριστερή παλάμη. Την παρατήρησε καθώς του πέρναγε τη θηλιά και δεν παραξενεύτηκε ιδιαίτερα που αναγνώρισε τον αβά ως δήμιό του. Μια ειρωνική σκέψη για τη συγχώρεση και την ανιδιοτελή αγάπη άρχισε να σχηματίζεται στο μυαλό του αλλά εξανεμίστηκε απότομα με το σφίξιμο του κόμπου στον αυχένα. Η καταπακτή άνοιξε κάτω από τα πόδια του, ένοιωσε να αιωρείται για λίγο, πριν ο ψυχρά επαγγελματικός κόμπος του σπάσει το λαιμό. Πρόλαβε με τον τελευταίο αέρα των πνευμόνων του να βγάλει μια πικρόχολη, απελπισμένη κραυγή και μετά πέθανε.

Ο μουσικός έφερε τον αυλό στα χείλη, αντί όμως να φυσήξει για να παίξει κάποια μελωδία, εισέπνευσε την τελευταία κραυγή του καταδικασμένου, την ύφανε σε νότες μέσα στα πνευμόνια του, και εκπνέοντας την παγίδεψε μέσα στο όργανο. Κατόπιν γύρισε, έβαλε τον αυλό στη ζώνη και συνέχισε το δρόμο του.

1349, σε ένα δρόμο της Νυρεμβέργης:

Το τελευταίο πτωματοφόρο κάρο της ημέρας είχε μόλις περάσει χωρίς να μαζέψει κάποιο φορτίο απ’ το καλύβι τους. Ένοιωθε τυχερή που θα κρατούσε συντροφιά στα τρία σπλάχνα της για μια νύχτα ακόμη. Τα βογκητά τους ήταν σα σαΐτες από ξύλο ελατιού με σκουριασμένες μύτες, που της διαπερνούσαν το κορμί, το τράνταζαν, και το κάρφωναν στο ξύλινο τοίχωμα του ταπεινού οικήματος. Όμως τα προτιμούσε από την ατέλειωτη σιωπή, από το να μείνουν αλάλητα για πάντα τα στόματα των παιδιών της.

Έβγαλε το βρεγμένο πανί από το μέτωπο του μεγαλύτερου, το βούτηξε στον κουβά με το νερό που είχε ανεβάσει απ’ το πηγάδι, και νωπό το ξανάσφιξε στο κεφάλι του. Σχημάτισε με το χέρι στον αέρα το ρούνο της Φρέια, και ψιθύρισε μια τρίστιχη προσευχή στην προγονική της θεά. Η χαμηλή ένταση της φωνής ήταν αποτέλεσμα πολυήμερης συνήθειας, δεν είχε σχέση με το φόβο της ανακάλυψης. Είχε πλέον διαβεί το κατώφλι αυτό, δεν την ενδιέφερε αν την κατηγορούσαν για λατρεία των παλιών θεών. Ο θεός που ήταν αναγκασμένη να λατρεύει σε όλη της τη ζωή είχε στείλει τον Μεγάλο Θάνατο ανάμεσά τους, ή έστω τον άφηνε να δρέπει ανεξέλεγκτα τις ζωές τους. Είχε σταματήσει να προσεύχεται όταν η πανούκλα πήρε τον άντρα της, δύο εβδομάδες νωρίτερα. Στράφηκε στους θεούς των πατέρων της, χωρίς να ξέρει πώς να τους λατρέψει, πώς να επικοινωνήσει μαζί τους. Ήταν μια τελευταία απελπισμένη έκκληση για σωτηρία, παρακάλαγε τον Όντιν να βγει καβάλα στον οχτάποδο Σλάιπνιρ, να κυνηγήσει το φάσμα της αρρώστιας απ’ την πόλη.

Η κραυγή του μικρότερου γιου την έβγαλε από την άκαρπη προσευχή της, την έκανε να πεταχτεί στο προσκεφάλι του. Από χτες είχε αρχίσει να μαυρίζει, να μελανιάζει στο δέρμα, και τα άκρα του ήδη σκοτεινιασμένα ανέδιδαν μια φρικτή δυσωδία, σαν κρέας που έχει αφεθεί για μέρες στον ήλιο του καλοκαιριού. Ήξερε τι θα συνέβαινε μέχρι το επόμενο πρωί. Πως ο αόρατος, ανίκητος μαύρος καβαλάρης θα απομυζούσε σιγά σιγά την πνοή του παιδιού της μέχρι να αφήσει ένα μισοσαπισμένο κουφάρι, βορά για τους νεκροθάφτες των αρχών. Θα το ανέβαζαν στο κάρο τους και θα το μετέφεραν σαν καυσόξυλο στη μεγάλη πυρά, που εδώ και εβδομάδες έκαιγε ακατάπαυστα, τρεφόμενη από τη σάρκα των θυμάτων. Εκεί που είχε καταλήξει ο άντρας της, οι γονείς της, εκεί που θα κατέληγε η ίδια, τα παιδιά της, η πόλη, ο κόσμος ολάκερος.

Σε δύο νύχτες της είχε μείνει μόνο ο μεγαλύτερος, μαυρισμένος κι αυτός απ’ την αρρώστια. Οι εκκλήσεις της στους αρχαίους θεούς δεν είχαν εισακουστεί, η ίδια ένιωθε τα πόδια της να σαπίζουν. Είχε πέσει από το ηλιοβασίλεμα δίπλα του, ανίκανη να πραγματοποιήσει οποιαδήποτε κίνηση, αδυνατώντας ακόμη και να τον αγγίξει, παρ’ όλο που ούτε μέτρο δεν τους χώριζε. Ήταν σα να υπήρχε ένα τεράστιο χάσμα ανάμεσά τους, χάσμα που θα συνέχιζε να βρίσκεται εκεί και μετά το θάνατό τους. Οι άσπλαχνοι θεοί, παλιοί και νέοι της είχαν στερήσει ακόμη και το δικαίωμα να πεθάνει ακουμπώντας το αίμα της. Τους καταράστηκε νοερά, γιατί το σάλιο της είχε στεγνώσει προ πολλού, η γλώσσα της είχε γίνει μαύρη και πληγωμένη σαν το ροζιασμένο κορμό γέρικου εβένου. Καταράστηκε την ελπίδα, αυτή την άσπλαχνη πλανεύτρα που δεν την άφησε να πάρει τις ζωές και των τεσσάρων τους όταν μπορούσε. Τότε ξεψύχησε.

Ένας βρωμερός τσαρλατάνος καθόταν έξω απ’ το παράθυρό της από τη στιγμή που έπεσε ο ήλιος. Έφερε τον αυλό του στα χείλη και αφομοίωσε την τελευταία της κατάρα, την έπλεξε μέσα του και την έκλεισε στο κοκάλινο όργανό του. Ταίριαζε με αυτές που είχε ήδη μαζέψει, αλλά βρισκόταν πολύ μακριά ακόμη από την ολοκλήρωση. Έβαλε τον αυλό στη ζώνη του και απομακρύνθηκε μέσα στη νύχτα, πιο σιωπηλός κι από τον ίσκιο.

1180 π.Χ. στα ανάκτορα των Μυκηνών:

Κοίταξε την αντανάκλασή της στο ασημένιο κάτοπτρο που στόλιζε το βορινό τοίχο του διαμερίσματός. Ακόμη και μετά τις κακουχίες δέκα ολόκληρων ετών η μορφή της παρέμενε πανώρια, γνήσια πριγκίπισσα του Ιλίου. Αν ήταν ο αδερφός της ίσως και να φούσκωνε από υπερηφάνεια στη σκέψη της βασιλικής γενιάς. Δεν ήταν όμως. Ο Έκτορας, ο πολυαγαπημένος, ήταν για πάντα χαμένος στα κρύα δώματα του Πλούτωνα, διασυρμένος από το φονιά του. Η ίδια ήταν η Κασσάνδρα, η καταραμένη μάντισσα, καταραμένη από το καπρίτσιο ενός θεού. Ενός θεού φωτοδότη για όλους τους άλλους, γεννήτορα του εσωτερικού σκότους για την ίδια.

Ο καθρέφτης άρχισε να θαμπώνει, να σκοτεινιάζει. Αναγνώρισε τα σημάδια του επικείμενου οράματος. Σε μια σπάνια κρίση αντιδραστικής άρνησης, πέταξε το χάλκινο κύπελλο που κρατούσε, με απελπισμένη δύναμη πάνω στον καθρέφτη. Κατάφερε να κάνει μια μικρή αμυχή, από την οποία άρχισε να αναβλύζει σκούρο, πηχτό, κοχλάζον αίμα. Κάλυψε όλη την επιφάνεια του, εκτός από ένα τμήμα ακαθόριστου σχήματος στη μέση, οπού και εμφανίστηκε η εικόνα του λουτρού των ανακτόρων. Εκεί που ο νικητής του πολέμου την είχε βιάσει τις τρεις προηγούμενες βραδιές και θα συνέχιζε να το κάνει μέχρι να έβρισκε το κουράγιο να πάρει τη ζωή της με τα ίδια της τα χέρια.

Το λουτρό στον καθρέφτη παλλόταν, σα να το έβλεπε μέσα από αιμάτινη κουρτίνα. Είδε το μισητό βασιλιά να την πλησιάζει, να την παίρνει με τη βία, να αφήνει αιματηρά σημάδια στο κορμί της. Είδε τον Αίγισθο, το ανδρείκελο αυτό της Κλυταιμνήστρας να χυμάει πάνω τους πάνοπλος, μαζί με την προσωπική του φρουρά, να τους μαχαιρώνει με πάθος, να ξεσκίζει και να σκορπάει τις σάρκες του Αγαμέμνονα, να ερωτοτροπεί πάνω στο δικό της γυμνό, πεθαμένο κορμί.

Δεν τόλμησε να ελπίσει ότι το όραμα δεν ήταν αληθινό. Το είχε κάνει παλιότερα, και κάθε φορά, οι τραγικές επιβεβαιώσεις της ξερίζωναν τα ελάχιστα ψήγματα ελπίδας. Πλέον περίμενε παθητικά, δουλικά, την ολοκλήρωση της καταραμένης, σύντομης ζωής, παραδομένη σε ένα μοιρολατρικό κενό. Αυτή, η Κασσάνδρα, πριγκίπισσα της Τροίας, κόρη του Πριάμου και της Εκάβης, ερωμένη του Απόλλωνα και καταραμένη από τον ίδιο, θα έσβηνε, θα πήγαινε στις πένθιμες αίθουσες της Περσεφόνης, θα γινότανε μια από τις αναρίθμητες σκιές που αλυχτούν γοερά αυτό που έχουν χάσει, περιμένοντας τους ζωντανούς να προστεθούν στις τάξεις τους.

Ο μουσικός κοίταζε από το παράθυρο του λουτρού την πολύβουη σφαγή. Αυτή τη φορά δεν περίμενε κάποια φωνή για να αιχμαλωτίσει στο αρχαίο μουσικό του όργανο. Την είχε πάρει προ πολλού την κραυγή της Κασσάνδρας, πίσω στην Τροία, ενώ ο θεογέννητος Αχιλλέας έσερνε το σώμα του Έκτορα γύρω από τα τείχη. Ήθελε απλά να παίξει μια μελωδία γι’ αυτή, χωρίς νόημα, χωρίς ελπίδα, βασανισμένη, όπως η ζωή της. Έφερε τον αυλό στα χείλη, έπαιξε για λίγο, τον έβαλε στη ζώνη του και κίνησε για αλλού.

Κάπου στο χρόνο:

Επί χιλιετίες τις μάζευε, κραυγές από παντού, κραυγές θανάτου, πόνου, δυστυχίας, πάνω απ’ όλα απελπισίας, Τις έψαχνε μεθοδικά, τις αναζητούσε σε οποιοδήποτε τόπο, σε οποιοδήποτε χρόνο. Δεν ήταν επιλεκτικός, αρκούσε ο ήχος να ήταν μια ολοκληρωτική άρνηση του ενδόμυχου περιεχομένου του αυλού του. Να θρυμμάτιζε, έστω και απειροελάχιστα αυτό που κρυβόταν στα βαθύτερα λαγούμια του κοκάλινου σωλήνα. Και ήταν τόσες πολλές οι κραυγές, που το είχανε ροκανίσει σχεδόν ολοκληρωτικά. Έμενε μια ακόμη τελευταία και το έργο του θα ολοκληρωνόταν. Μετά μπορούσε να ξεκουραστεί.

Στην Ανατολή πορεύτηκε, στη μεγαλύτερη οροσειρά σκαρφάλωσε. Στη στέγη του κόσμου κούρνιασε όταν έπεσε η νύχτα. Εκεί, κάτω από το καθάριο, αγνό λαμπύρισμα των άστρων, πήρε τον αυλό στα πολύπαθα χέρια του, τον περιεργάστηκε για λίγο, νιώθοντας το βασανισμένο παλμό των φωνών, τη μελωδία των καταραμένων. Τον έφερε δυο πόντους από τα χείλη του και ψιθύρισε τα τελευταία του λόγια, λόγια που τα ύφαινε από την αρχή του κόσμου. Τον αποχωρίστηκαν και πήγαν να συναντήσουν τους συντρόφους τους, στον οστέινο λαβύρινθο μπροστά του.

Και έπαιξε τη μελωδία του τέλους. Αυτός, που άκουγε σε πολλά ονόματα και τελευταίο διάλεξε το Πανδώρα να τον συντροφεύει, άπλωσε πάνω στην ανθρωπότητα το μελωδικό πέπλο της απελπισίας.

Και η ανθρωπότητα το άκουσε και κατάλαβε

Και τα μάτια τους σκοτείνιασαν και τα άστρα κρύφτηκαν για πάντα

Και τα αυτιά τους ράγισαν και η μουσική σώπασε για πάντα

Και οι μύτες τους σφάλισαν και τα λουλούδια μαράθηκαν για πάντα

Και οι γλώσσες τους κόπηκαν και η τροφή ήταν σαν στάχτη

Και τα άκρα τους πέσανε και σερνόταν σα φίδια

Και οι ψυχές τους θρυμματίστηκαν σαν την ελπίδα που οι ίδιοι είχαν σκοτώσει

(Εκδόθηκε στη συλλογή διηγημάτων Θρύλοι του Σύμπαντος Ι, Εκδόσεις Συμπαντικές Διαδρομές, το 2007)

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English version

1652, a London prison:

The bell tolled the first hour after midnight. For the past two days rain was falling ceaselessly upon the city. The cell dormer formed an ideal passage for the water to trickle into his solemn quarters. The steady sound of falling droplets imitated a funeral procession, their march creating a reverse Jacob’s ladder, casting unanswered from the heavens the pleas for life of their dispatcher. He had nowhere else to turn to in his despair, no one but the supreme Power. The belief in Its existence had nurtured him since birth, the faith in It had nourished his being through three decades of life. Now, in his hour of need, It had rejected him.

Last night, the visiting abbe had promised that, his innocence, be it true, would shine like unvarnished gold before the grand Judge of life and death, it would endow him with a seat beside his creator, a place to praise the Lord for all eternity. An eternity remote to him, seemingly far removed, though with every bell chime that distance was devoured. Stifled was his desire for giving praise to anyone now, though nigh was the hour of his death. He lusted to keep breathing through his broken nose, to keep touching with his scalded hands, to keep his tattered mind thinking, for many years to come. His body had paid a heavy toll to the inquisitors’ instruments. But it was his body nonetheless, shuddering chills coursed through him in the thought that it would be lost in a few hours.

His stomach convulsed again, he fell down to his knees, trying to discharge the remaining of its contents, to raise them as votive offerings of hate amidst the stone floor tiles. Unsuccessfully. His throat coarse, his gullet contused, they opposed the thick saliva as he tried to swallow. Rejection everywhere. It was as if a precocious noose was constricted around him, eager in its decisive pitilessness, insatiable its cruel gluttony for doomed necks to snap. He couldn’t breathe, in vain did his hands try to deal with the nonexistent knot.

Recovering, he rose, stepped on a newly formed urine pool with his bare feet, fell down again, tried to crawl on his hands, hands irreversibly deformed by the fiery blades of inquisition. He spat, and his outer vision darkened, letting his inner one to be filled with the phantom of the gallows. He opened his eyes quickly and screamed bitterly. Tears ran down his filthy cheeks, the knot in his stomach tightened. He didn’t want to die. He hurled himself at the plain yet staunch to its purpose door, he tried to bite it with the fragments of his teeth. The pain unbearable, yet not a sliver of redemptive unconsciousness did smile upon him.

The bell tolled the fifth hour after midnight. He heard the austere, heavy steps of the gaolers approaching the inviolable door. He started clobbering again the stone floor, breaking one of his wrists. The gate unlocked, opened. The torch’s light blinded him, the smell of burning fat, used as fuel, prevailed in his nostrils. Strong arms lifted him, iron grips like black vises around his body. They dragged him out of the cell, out of the tower dungeons, as the cloudless morning sky flared red in the east. The procession onwards marched, a blur of images. He had shut himself up, barricading every route of communication with the outside world, he ruminated the feelings of despair and of his approaching end.

The next stimulus were the judge’s final words: “…sentenced to death by hanging. May God have mercy on your soul.” He looked around and saw that he was upon the wooden gallows. The audience of his upcoming death consisted of a dozen curious bystanders, a few drowsy trumps, the judge, the trio of guards that had carried him. In the opposite corner of the square there stood a musician, a flutist. A lugubrious entourage to cheer the dropping of his curtain.

Hearing a heavy breath from behind, he turned his head. He saw the last actor of the shadow play that was his life. Black-hooded head, gray-washed eyes, pulpy, aged hands. One of the man’s palms was scarred, he was watching it as it slipped the noose over his head. Not great was his surprise as he realised that the abbe was his executioner. Ironic thoughts about forgiveness and selfless love came to fruition in his mind, but they were all abruptly dispersed as the knot tightened about his neck. The trapdoor opened underneath him, a momentary levitation, before the ruthless professional knot snapped his nape. Time enough to empty his lungs with a sour, desperate cry, before he died.

The musician brought the flute to his lips. Instead of blowing a melody, he inhaled through it the last cry of the condemned, he wove it into notes inside his lungs, and trapped it in his instrument by exhaling. Thence he turned around, placed the flute at his belt, and continued down the road.

1349, a Nuremberg street:

The last corpse-carrier of the day had just moved on, his cart not claiming any cargo from their hut. She felt lucky, being able to keep company to her three children for one more night. Their groans, like rusty arrowheads they pierced her body, they rattled it, they nailed it to the wooden boards of the humble abode. Still, those cries were preferable to the endless silence, to the eternal muting of her children’s voices.

She removed the dry cloth from her youngest son’s forehead, immersed it in a bucket of water, water that she had drawn from the family well. Cold and moist again, she retied it around his head. Then she drew the Freyja rune in the air, muttering a three versed prayer to her ancestral goddess. The low volume of her voice was a result of convention, not related anymore to the fear of discovery. She was past that threshold, not bothered by accusations of heathen worship. This god that she was forced to praise throughout her life had probably sent Black Death among them. At the very least he had left it unchecked to reap their lives. She had stopped praying to him two weeks past, when the plague claimed her husband. She had turned to the gods of her forefathers, with only vague knowledge of their worship, with no idea of how to communicate with them. It was a last desperate cry for salvation, she beckoned Odin to emerge, riding Sleipnir the eight hoofed, to dispel the spectre of disease from the town.

The moan of her youngest son disrupted her fruitless prayer, she hastened to his side. Since yesterday his flesh had started blackening, his skin bruising. His hands and feet, already dark, exuded a putrid stench, like meat left for days under the summer sun’s gaze. She knew what to expect come next morning. Oh, how the invisible, the all-invincible rider would drain slowly the breath of her child, till the only thing left would be a half-rotten husk, prey to the gravediggers. It would be thrown upon their cart, then carried like a log to the great pyre, the bonfire that burned incessantly for weeks, feeding of the flesh of the deceased. The pyre had already fed on her husband, her parents, it would feed on her children, on her, on the town, on the whole world.

In two nights time she had only her elder son left, the disease already blackening him. Her pleas to the ancient gods had not been answered. She felt her own legs rotting. Since sunset she had fallen next to him, incapable of moving, not able to touch him, though not even a yard separated them. It was like a cavernous chasm had appeared between them, a chasm that would exist past death as well. Woe to the pitiless gods, old and new, that had deprived her of the mercy of dying embraced with her offspring. She cursed them silently, for gone was her saliva for hours, blackened was her tongue and blistered like a tainted tree bark. She cursed Hope itself, that remorseless mistress, who would stay her hand from taking her own life while she was still able. Then she passed away.

A filthy charlatan had moved outside her window since twilight. He raised the flute to his lips, assimilating her last curse. He wove it inside him, then encased it in his bone instrument. It matched those curses already collected, but far from complete was his assortment. He replaced the flute on his belt, and set off into the night, silent as a shade.

1180 b.c. The Mycenaean palace:

She gazed upon her reflection in the silver mirror gracing the north wall of her apartment. Even after ten years of hardships, her figure was exquisite, a genuine princess of Illion. If her mindset was anything like her brother’s, she would be reveling in the thought of the royal line. But no Hector was she. No beloved Hector who was now forever lost in the cold halls of Hades, traduced by his killer. She was Cassandra, the accursed oracle, damned by a capricious god. A god luminous for all humanity but her. In Cassandra he had birthed darkness impenetrable.

The mirror turned blurry, murky. She acknowledged the signs of the impending vision. In a moment of rare refusal, denial, she tossed the copper cup in her hand towards the polished metal, with desperate force. Only a small scratch did she managed, and from that scratch thick, seething blood started oozing. It spread all over the surface, apart from a vague area in the middle. There appeared an image of the palace baths. The baths where the conqueror of Troy had raped her for the past three nights, as he would continue doing, unless she mustered the courage to take her own life.

The scene in the mirror pulsated, like she was watching it through a curtain of blood. She saw the hated king approaching her, taking her by violence, leaving bloody marks on her body. She watched Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s puppet, rushing fully armed upon them, flanked by his personal guard. She watched as he stabbed them passionately, as he ravaged and scattered the flesh of Agamemnon, as he made love to her own naked, dead body.

No hope had she that the vision would come to be deceptive, false. Every time she had dared to think so, the tragic confirmations had come rushing, ripping apart her few vestiges of hope. She would give her mind over to a fatalistic void, would await passively her damned, short life’s end. She, Cassandra, princess of Troy, daughter of Priam and Hecuba, lover of Apollo, cursed by him, she would be quenched, she would descend to the mournful halls of Persephone, she would be one of the countless shades, the ones that wail endlessly for what they have lost, awaiting the living to join their ranks.

The musician beheld from the bath window the blustering slaughter. This time no voice, no scream, no curse awaited to be trapped inside the ancient instrument of his. Cassandra’s outcries he had claimed long ago, back in Troy, while god-begotten Achilles hauled Hector’s body around the city walls. No, this time he had a melody for her, a meaningless, hopeless one, as tortured as her life was. He played the flute awhile, then returned it in his belt and roamed far away.

Somewhere in time

For millenia had he gathered them, moans from the whole world, screams of death, misery, pain, screams of raw despair. He was methodically questing for them, through time and space. Fastidious he was not, any sound was suitable, as long as it was in total negativity with his flute’s inmost core. As long as it shattered infinitesimally what was hidden in the deepest burrows of the bone tube. So innumerable were the screams, that it had been almost totally gnawed. One more, then his work would be complete. Then he could rest.

To the East he marched, on the greatest mountain range he climbed. At the top of the world he perched, as night fell. There, beneath the clear and pure shimmer of stars, he grasped the flute in his weary hands, prying it for a moment, sensing the tortured pulse of the voices, the melody of the damned. He raised it to his lips and uttered his last words, words that he had woven since the dawn of Time. They parted with him, gone to meet their comrades, inside the bony maze.

And he performed the End melody. He of many names, Pandora being his last, he suffused humanity with the discordant veil of hopelessness.

…And humanity listened and understood.

…And darkened were their eyes, and the stars were hidden eternally.

…And cracked were their ears, and music muted forever.

…And sealed were their nostrils, and flowers forever withered.

…And cut were their tongues, and all nourishment was ash.

…And fallen were their extremities, and they did slither like snakes.

…And broken into pieces were their souls, broken like Hope that they themselves had murdered.

(Published in the short story collection «Legends of the Universe I»[Θρύλοι του Σύμπαντος Ι], Universal Pathways Editions, in 2008)

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Naðra – Allir vegir til glötunar review

Naðra - Allir vegir til glötunar

The contemporary Icelandic black metal scene is more or less a mosaic of different aspects of what is known as the ’00s orthodox sound per se, as it was showcased by Deathspell Omega in their “Fas” album, namely disharmonic, dissonant if you prefer, black metal with lots of death metal thrown in, as well as Ved Buens Ende influences. It is a sound that has almost stigmatised the whole scene, even though each band is able to mark its own aspect with a personal character. The fact is, however, that this was not always the case with this island of Scandinavia. During the ’90s, Icelandic black metal was more or less identified with Sólstafir, namely a melodic, pagan black metal style, obviously influenced by the Norwegians, yet with an even more primal edge. After that, and apart from Sólstafir (which took on a completely new musical direction), there was pretty much a sense of vacuum coming from that northern niche.

Yet this apparent non-existence of other Icelandic BM bands was crucial to my forming the imaginative axiom that all (future) bands from there would definitely play a sort of melodic Enslaved/Kampfar thing. Obviously, bands like Wormlust, Misþyrming, and Svartidauði proved me wrong, and forcefully managed to dispel this notion of mine, shifting the focus from pagan to orthodox darkness. The thing is, the mental connection of Iceland with melodic pagan BM never entirely dissipated, and Naðra, with their “Eitur” demo (2014) and especially with this year’s “Allir vegir til glötunar,” which is a natural expansion of the first release, managed to remind me of this more naive conviction of mine. The band consists of five members, all of which participate in other bands of the scene, Misþyrming being the one most densely frequented (4 out of 5 members).

First things first: just like the demo, Naðra’s debut sports Skaðvaldur’s amazing hand-made artwork, totally in the spirit of ’90s black metal, yet graced with a white background, foreshadowing the choice of Frost over Darkness. Two out of the five album tracks come straight from the “Eitur” demo, obviously with much better sound this time, and the other three songs build upon the same basic motifs: flowing guitar riffs, with almost punky outbursts in certain moments (take for instance the opening of “Fjallið”), deeply rooted in the romantic, nature-worshipping soundscapes of times past. Here can be found branches of what Taake and Kampfar had once sown. A string motion that oscillates between atmosphere and flexibility, never letting dreaming fall into monotonous sloth, writhing with melody throughout. There are moments that the rhythm section takes on a hypnotic path, almost diverging into the land of ritual, yet always retaining this northern grace that is a major characteristic of the Scandinavian scene per se. What was amiss from the latest wave bands from Iceland was ice itself, choosing darkness over it. Naðra, as I aforementioned concerning the cover art, return to this icy vastness, so iconic of Iceland itself, creating pure frosty majesty of great quality, something that is not frequently chanced upon nowadays.

Passionate, utterly frigid, melodic and imbued with the pagan spirit of a decade gone by, “ Allir vegir til glötunar” is an ode to the early Icelandic black metal scene, boasting some of the best riffing that can be traced back to contemporary Iceland (and not only). An early yet strong contestant for this year’s end list.

 

Doctor Who Top Episodes – Season 5

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Season 1

Season 2

Season 3

Season 4

Δυο είναι τα βασικά «τεχνικά» χαρακτηριστικά της πέμπτης σεζόν: η είσοδος του Matt Smith στο ρόλο του Doctor, και η είσοδος του Moffat στο δημιουργικό τιμόνι της σειράς. Και αν η πρώτη αλλαγή κατάφερε να είναι περισσότερο επιτυχημένη από όσο τολμούσα να ελπίζω, η δεύτερη έχει αρνητικές συνέπειες οι οποίες άρχισαν ελαφρώς να φαίνονται από την αρχή, αλλά θα γιγαντωθούν κυρίως στις επόμενες τρεις σεζόν. Όσον αφορά τον Matt Smith, στο ρόλο του ενδέκατου Doctor, παρά την αρχική ψυχρολουσία (τόσο όσον αφορά το περιτύλιγμα – ο ενδέκατος είναι ο πλέον νεαρός Doctor, και δίνει αρχικά την αίσθηση του σχετικά ακατέργαστου υλικού – όσο στην άκομψη, τραχιά σχεδόν, συμπεριφορά, μακριά από την γνήσια βρετανική elegance του Tennant), με κέρδισε πολύ γρήγορα, παρά το μέτριο υλικό των τριών πρώτων επεισοδίων. Όπως είχα γράψει και στο τέλος της τέταρτης σεζόν, ο 10th Doctor/Tennant είχε καεί εσωτερικά, τόσο με την αλλαγή τριών Companions σε τρία χρόνια, όσο και με την απότοκη αυτού ύβρη που διέπραξε στο “Waters of Mars.” Ο Matt Smith έφερε στο ρόλο μια ακόμη πιο trickster χροιά, μια φαινομενική ανεμελιά, ενίοτε στα όρια της αθωότητας, η οποία όμως δεν αποκρύπτει τελείως το γεγονός ότι είναι η ενδέκατη ενσάρκωση, με τη γνώση και εμπειρία όλων των προηγουμένων· είναι μεγαλύτερος ηλικιακά ο ενδέκατος Doctor (προφανώς), παρά το νεαρό της εμφάνισης.

Όσον αφορά τώρα την ανάληψη των ηνίων από τον Moffat, τα πράγματα είναι σε αυτή τη σεζόν άνισα: τέσσερα από τα έξι συνολικά επεισόδια που έγραψε είναι καταπληκτικά (με τα δυο πρώτα να είναι τα υπόλοιπα δυο), το γενικό story arc ήταν μια ευχάριστη ανάπαυλα πρωτοτυπίας (και ανησυχητικής υπόνοιας κοσμικού τρόμου μη δραπετεύσιμου – κάθε φορά που εμφανιζόταν κάποια ρωγμή) μέχρι ενός σημείου (δεν μιλάω για το πως συνεχίστηκε στις επόμενες σεζόν), αλλά το συνολικό πρόσημο του αποτελέσματος της πρόσθεσης των επεισοδίων είναι μάλλον αρνητικό, θυμίζοντας λίγο την μέτρια ποιότητα της δεύτερης σεζόν. Η Amy είναι μια ελαφρώς άχρωμη Companion, τουλάχιστον στην αρχή, την οποία μπορεί να συμπαθώ περισσότερο από την Rose, αλλά είναι ίσως ο λιγότερο δουλεμένος χαρακτήρας μέχρι εκείνη τη στιγμή στη σειρά. Ο Rory, στα επεισόδια που εμφανίζεται, κερδίζει μάλλον τις εντυπώσεις, αλλά με μικρή διαφορά – πέρα από το φινάλε βέβαια, στο οποίο και ο ίδιος και η Amy παίρνουν τα πάνω τους στην υπόληψή μου. Η ανάδειξη της River ως ήμι-μόνιμη Companion είναι ακόμη θετικής χροιάς, και αποτελεί συν τοις άλλοις ένα αντίβαρο στην σαφή βαρυτική δύναμη του Doctor.

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Time of the Angels/Flesh & Stone: Δεύτερη εμφάνιση της River Song στη σειρά (όπου ψυλλιαζόμαστε και κάποια πράγματα για το παρελθόν της/μέλλον μας), άκρως καλοδεχούμενη μετά την ξεκάθαρα θετική εντύπωση από τα “Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead.” Δεύτερη εμφάνιση επίσης των Weeping Angels, μετά την πανηγυρικά υπερθετική εντύπωση του “Blink.” Το σκηνικό «ρημαγμένος πλανήτης – αρχαία ερείπια ένοπλη ομάδα διάσωσης/έρευνας» είναι προφανώς τετριμμένο, αλλά πάντα ευχάριστο. Η παρουσίαση των Angels παραμένει τρομακτική, τόσο με την μη αναμενόμενη εμφάνιση και πληθυσμιακή πυκνότητα, όσο και κυρίως με αυτήν την (τελείως κλείσιμο ματιού στον θεατή – pun intended) ικανότητα κίνησής τους μέσω οποιασδήποτε εικόνας τους, η οποία αφαιρεί κάτι από την ασφάλεια της θέσης του θεατή – εξαιρετική υλοποίηση τρόμου. Ειδικά η μόλυνση του ματιού με την εικόνα του Angel χτυπάει συμβολικά σε ασυνείδητο επίπεδο, θυμίζοντας μύθους περί Κακού Ματιού, δηλητηριώδεις ακίδες, και γενικότερα σκοτεινό μύθο και παραμύθι. Η επανάληψη του Vashta Nerada τρικ «ομιλία μέσω του νεκρού θύματός μας» πιάνει ακόμη, και σε συνδυασμό με το αχανές σκοτάδι των σπηλαίων δημιουργεί πολύ πειστική ατμόσφαιρα. Στο δεύτερο μισό ο παραδοσιακός τρόμος δίνει τη θέση του σε μια αρκετά πιο παράδοξη θεώρηση της ατμόσφαιρας, με κλασσικούς sci-fi κλειστοφοβικούς χώρους, ένα απρόσμενο δάσος, και κυρίως την στιβαρή εμφάνιση των ρωγμών, ως μια άμυαλη μορφή της καταστροφής στον υπερθετικό βαθμό, χτυπώντας πολύ βαθιά – στην ίδια την ύπαρξη του όντος. Εξαιρετικό όλο το σεκάνς με την (ουσιαστικά) τυφλή Amy, άξιος διάδοχος ενός από τα καλύτερα επεισόδια της σειράς.

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Vincent & the Doctor: Έχω ξαναπεί ότι τα επεισόδια στα οποία συναντάμε παρελθοντικά διάσημα, ιστορικά, πρόσωπα, έχουν μια παραπάνω αξία (για μένα τουλάχιστον), τόσο αν αυτά έχουν να κάνουν με τα κυρίως ειπείν γεγονότα χάρη στα οποία είναι διάσημα, αλλά και ίσως και περισσότερο όταν απλά παρουσιάζουν σκηνές από την καθημερινότητα του εν λόγω ατόμου. Το συγκεκριμένο επεισόδιο προφανώς περιστρέφεται γύρω από τον Vincent Vang Gogh, και όσον αφορά την κυρίως πλοκή του δεν είναι κάτι το ιδιαίτερο: ένα σχετικά αδιάφορο τέρας, το οποίο έχει έναν προφανή παραλληλισμό (ο οποίος ούτως ή άλλως δηλώνεται ρητά και εντός του) με τη ζωή του ζωγράφου. Το ενδιαφέρον εδώ είναι αυτά που γίνονται στο διάκοσμο, το ίδιο το περιβάλλον ουσιαστικά, βασικό μέρος του οποίου είναι φυσικά και ο Vincent. Απλοϊκή μα βαθιά συγκινησιακή ματιά στη ζωή του, με εξάρσεις ικανοποίησης λόγω της ιδεατής θραύσης της ζοφερής καθημερινότητας του ζωγράφου από την παρουσία του Doctor και της Amy. Και το αποκορύφωμα είναι η εν ζωή θέαση της μετά θάνατον αναγνώρισης του καλλιτέχνη, κάτι το οποίο είναι κρυφός διακαής πόθος για πάρα πολλούς οπαδούς οποιουδήποτε καλλιτέχνη ο οποίος δεν γνώρισε ποτέ την αναγνώριση όσο ζούσε, αλλά και δεν είδε πως εξελίχθηκαν και εξέλιξαν τα έργα του στο μέλλον του. Το επεισόδιο σίγουρα πατάει στη συγκίνηση (ακόμη και στην αναγνώριση του κενού του Rory από τον Vincent, εκεί που η ίδια η Amy δεν θυμάται τίποτα), αλλά το κάνει με έναν τόσο εγκάρδιο τρόπο που δεν μπορείς να του καταλογίσεις τίποτα.

The_pandorica_opens-van_gogh

The Pandorica opens/The Big Bang: Επικό φινάλε σεζόν, από αυτά τα οποία κορυφώνουν σε υπέρμετρη κλίμακα. Τι κι αν ξανά-εμφανίζονται Daleks και Cybermen, αυτή τη φορά ο μικρός ρόλος τους είναι ουσιαστικά διακοσμητικός. Τι κι αν υπάρχει μια λεγεώνα πλαστικών Ρωμαίων με όπλα μέσα στα χέρια τους και με την River Song για Κλεοπάτρα, η υπέροχη επιστροφή του Rory και η (παράλογη αλλά κατανοητή) απόφασή του να σταθεί για 2000 χρόνια φύλακας του Pandorica σβήνουν τα όποια αρνητικά. Η εξήγηση του όλου story arc με τα cracks είναι αρκούντως μοφφατική, ίσως περισσότερο από όσο θα μου άρεσε, έχει ένα στοιχείο κοσμικής υπερβολής που είναι βέβαια αλληλένδετο με το Doctor Who (αλλά εδώ ήταν μια καλή ευκαιρία για κάτι πιο πνευματικό/εξωκοσμικό). Η υπόσχεση συνέχισης του μυστηρίου στην επόμενη σεζόν τότε μου φαινόταν άκρως ενδιαφέρουσα και λογική, αλλά έχοντας στο μυαλό μου τώρα πόσο τελικά κράτησε αυτό το γαϊτανάκι, έχω κάποιες δεύτερες σκέψεις. Τέλος, μπορεί ο Moffat να μην έχει αφήσει χαρακτήρα για χαρακτήρα νεκρό, αλλά η επάνοδος του Doctor στο κλείσιμο του επεισοδίου είναι αγνή ανατριχίλα και ικανοποίηση, κι ας είναι (ή ίσως και λόγω αυτού) ελαφρώς cheesy. Παρά τα όποια μειονεκτήματα, το φινάλε αυτό σε κερδίζει πανεύκολα με το μέγεθος και την ορμητικότητά του. Μεγαλείο.

Skáphe – Skáphe² review

skaphe

The thing about chaotic and dissonant music with highly fluid nature and unconventional song structure is that it is quite difficult to memorize as a listener, and therefore to re-visit it in its absence. Whereas more conventional music forms can be easily examined in retrospection, the category in which Skáphe’s second album belongs almost requires it (the category specimen) being present in order for the examiner to draw any kind of conclusions more profound than “this band plays chaotic dissonant black metal”. More than the elusive riffing, it is the entanglement of the different parts that ultimately forces the listener to just experience the music, rather than pack it in his mind for a later occasion. It’s like trying to force concrete meaning upon pieces of wood drifting on a stormy sea, or rather, like trying to gather all those pieces in order to build a raft but end up drowning in the hopeless process, while you could be saved (or drown without so much wasted effort) by grasping on whichever piece was most accessible at the time.

Moving onwards, Skáphe’s sophomore album, “Skáphe²,” is a fine example of music created first and foremost to be impressed by the audience. It is a hazy, feverish entity, resembling a journey through paradoxically articulated catacombs and dream-forms, like a host of feathered serpents crawling upon the dried riverbeds of infernal streams. Just take a look to the excellent cover art to see what I mean. Elusive guitar riffs fade in and out with spectral eloquence, nevertheless not forgetting the black metal imposing majesty when things call for all-out assault. The album is mostly wandering in its character, guiding the listener through otherworldly vistas, but guide gives quickly way to adversary when menace is transmuted to concrete evil. The vocals of D.G. (Misþyrming, Naðra) are crushing with high-quality growls, peaking when they turn to ghostly howling (as in the almost psychedelic middle part of “VI”). The voice in many a part tends to transmute in shriek riffing, and vice versa, creating an organic fluidity between the two instruments. Rhythm section leans towards creation of framing volume, rather than taking the lead. The sad thing is that as with the Skáphe debut, none of the lyrics are available, and this time, we cannot even meditate on descriptive song titles, tracks being named just arithmetically (“I”, “II”, etc).

“Skáphe²” is a beautiful beast of an album. It stands way beyond and above the snoring boredom that characterizes most of the albums of this chaotic type, blazing as dark incense inside the listener’s mind during its 35 minutes of duration, guiding the audience in a grotesque journey through occult lands of non-Euclidean geometry. It is the audio equivalent of fever mentality, and thus it certainly is not an easy album to tackle, yet it rewards with an experience that keeps calling the listener back to it, more so because this experience is inaccessible outside the record per se. An excellent specimen of contemporary black metal.

Meta-thinking in cRPGs – part 1

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Part 1: Introduction, definitions, the Save/Load/Restart mechanisms, the Player as the meta-thinking accumulator of knowledge, & min-maxers as modernity incarnated

Terminology:

       Player: The real-world aspect of a person playing a game

       Character: The Player’s in-game representation

       Meta-thinking: Thinking about the game as a Player, not as a Character


Introduction

In Age of Decadence [1], a 2015 RPG, before you even create your character, you are informed by the game itself, that “it is a very different game from what you are used to. Its world is hard and unforgiving, and it really doesn’t take much to end up dead. In fact, it’s painfully easy[to die], especially if you try to play the game the way you normally play RPGs, when you role-play Superman, able to handle any challenge and smite evildoers by the dozens.” This portion of the whole statement (which is quite interesting in its entirety as an object of analysis) makes certain suppositions, namely that:
1. The player is used to a certain type of computer role-playing games, all of which are very different from AoD.
2. Those games feature worlds that are not hard and unforgiving, in contrast to that of AoD.
3. In the other games it is not easy for the Character to die.
4. There is a certain way to play those other RPGs, and their players follow this way of playing. This way of playing, however, is not further analyzed in the statement, though it is implied in the assumption that in all other RPGs you role-play something akin to Superman, namely a character extremely more powerful than all the others in the world, that overcomes both challenges and enemies without breaking a sweat.
5. In other games you fight and slay evildoers, creatures that engage in evil acts.

AoDCharCreat

Those assumptions/suppositions suggest a certain level of elitism on the writer’s side, as well as a sense of scorn for “nowadays RPGs”. Elitism is evident as the writer groups indiscriminately all modern RPGs in a category which he endows with a host of general characteristics that are obviously repellent to him, and though they are only implied, are assumed to be common knowledge for RPG players. Beyond stuffing all modern RPGs in a category, the writer assumes that the players of those games are forced to a certain way of playing them, implying that there is no other way for them to be played (though the way is not made explicit beyond the vaguest references and allusions), that their easiness is so compelling that players are helpless to resist this unspecified mode of going through the game world.

There is much to be criticised about this stance, but such a thing is beyond the scope of this text. What I want to accentuate here is the fact that the game recognizes and directly addresses the player as a gamer, as a person that has played other RPGs, and beyond that, it explicitly recognizes the existence of a universe of other games (the meta-game) and elaborates on it, a thing going contrary to what more other RPGs try to avoid, namely the breaking of player immersion via direct reference to his Player ontological status.

Beyond that, as it becomes evident during play, AoD requires the player to proceed through the game as a meta-gaming entity, namely, it is almost mandatory for the player to know beforehand what choices to make as far as both stat/skill point distribution and dialogue choices are concerned. In order to have this knowledge, the player must either use a large number of save files, or restart the game a number of times, so as to know what to expect, and what are the viable choices she can make. It is a (from first-hand experience) fact that if you don’t make the right point distribution in skills you can easily face dead-end situations (combat and other skill checks that are impossible to beat), not only during the first part of the game, but also much later on, in which case you either load a much older save and replay a large part of the game with a more optimized build, or you just restart. If one does not want to frequently reload/restart, he is forced with two options: either check a walkthrough guide, or use cheating. The game’s structure is such that it leaves no space (apart from improbable luck) for not using a meta-gaming tool: the save/load/restart routine, the out-of-game walkthrough, and/or a trainer hack. One may argue that the save/load/restart routine is an in-game feature, but that does not prevent it from being a meta-gaming tool when it is used as a mandatory-for-overcoming-challenges one. More will be written later on the status of the save/load/restart mechanisms.

Meta-thinking and RPGs

Meta-thinking in RPGs, in the context of this text, is the thinking «outside the game world frame” of the person who plays the game, namely thinking as a Player and not as an internal part of the game world, as a Character. I will briefly elaborate on the impossibility (at least for the moment) of tautological (on an ontological level) identification between Player and Character (which differs from what is referred to as total immersion in Brown & Cairns or spatial presence in Wirth et.al., as will be discussed below).

If, hypothetically, one was completely identified with his in-game representation, then some things are to be mentioned, depending on the game world’s universal (physical, social, mental, etc) laws:
-If the game world was presupposed as being a world in which some general facts of our reality were also dominant there (namely the irreversible existence of consequences for an act, them being legal repercussions (incarceration, execution), social (isolation, scorn), emotional, physical, mental, and so on) then if the Player was completely identified with the Character, he would experience this kind of gaming as a real-life activity that would create in him the same reactions and thoughts, in the same degree, as if he experienced the in-game situations in our world – anxiety, real fear, major excitement, etc. In fact, it would not be trivial for someone to choose to start playing, having in mind the experience-to-come, as well as the possible (real-life to him) consequences.
-If, on the other hand, the game world was ruled by other laws of cause and effect, or not ruled by them at all, then the completely identified player would have to undergo a radical change of mind in order to be totally immersed in it, accepting the reality of totally alien cosmological laws.

In either case, the Player would have to forget the existence of the real world (and consequently its rules, if they were not similar to our own world’s), or at least to push it back to an imaginary domain, accepting the reality of the game world and also, in the second case, its different set of natural and social rules as real. Once in the game, the mindset would be perhaps akin to that of dreaming, if total identification is to be expected. Like in dreaming, one could sometimes be vaguely aware that this world/reality is not the real one, but in most cases this feeling would be hidden beyond direct consciousness. In both hypothetical instances mentioned, the gaming experience -as we now know it- is transcended/discarded, in favour of a much more intense real-life experience, on which we can only hypothesize for the moment. Thus, a Player cannot be completely identified with the Character, unless he undergoes a radical thought and perception change, which for the moment is unattainable, as far as contemporary digital entertainment is concerned.

Meta-thinking thus, up to a certain degree, is a normal and essential part of the gaming experience as we currently know it. Most of us enjoy the fact that we can try and do things in-game that we are hesitant or just unable to do in the real world, and (most importantly) with almost non-existent consequences in the case of failure, virtual apprehension, death, etc. It is true that one could argue that if she could live such an experience, she may well choose to undergo it, but as pointed out above, this would be a real-life one, transcending the gaming genre. The fact remains that meta-thinking is something we all do in a certain degree, be it the acknowledgement of the Save/Load/Restart mechanisms, or just the knowledge that we play a game. It is true also that there are gradual stages to it, quantitative and qualitative variances, which may well shape (or undermine one could claim) the gaming experience, in varied degrees.

It is obvious, that since we are not, as Players, parts of a game world’s society (or societies) for an amount of time large enough to make us knowledgeable about it, we must learn certain basic things about it, its physical laws and mechanisms on the very least, via out-of-the-game-world sources: the game manual, site or guides (though in the first two cases information may be disguised as documents belonging to the game world – letters, bestiaries, journals, etc), a tutorial (which is usually implemented via advice that comes “from outside” the game world – although certain games (like the Ultima series) suppose that the Character is a newcomer to the world, and thus implement the learning process from inside the game world), and the options menu (the key bindings in the case that no tutorial exists and the manual is not present or does not mention them). These sources are usually necessary in order to not being completely lost in the game world upon entrance in it. This, along with our knowledge/experience from previous, similar games (which is the deeper level of meta-knowledge, one we cannot consciously discard from our being), consists the most basic meta-thinking level, one that is almost impossible for a game to be rid of. From there on, however, all other meta-knowledge of the game world is (or at least should be) optional, as far as the Player’s experience of the game is. This means that ideally one should not be forced to the use of knowledge gained via meta-thinking mechanisms, even Save/Load/Restart ones, in order to successfully navigate the whole, or at least the main part of the game. While most of us have learned to avert our eyes to the meta-thinking nature (which will be analyzed below) of the Save/Load/Restart mechanisms, this does not mean that it is not there. The fact that one can learn of the outcome of a decision and then use it to make this decision, is (almost universally) outside the logic of any game world.

BK-cover-PGE3

A book containing lore about the empire of Tamriel, presented as originating from the game world (from Elder Scrolls: Oblivion special edition)


Immersion and Meta-thinking

Ernest Adams refers to the term “suspension of disbelief, as used by the game industry, that has come to mean immersion: losing track of the outside world. Immersion is the feeling of being submerged in a form of entertainment, or rather, being unaware that you are experiencing an artificial world. When you are immersed in a book, movie, or game, you devote all your attention to it and it seems real. You have lost track of the boundaries of the magic circle. The pretended reality in which you are immersed seems as real as, or at least as meaningful as, the real world.”. I will add that you never lose track of the realness of the real world, something implied in the “as real as, or at least as meaningful as, the real world” part. He then demarcates (at least) 3 types of gaming immersion: tactical, strategical, and narrative. By immersion I mostly mean in this text narrative immersion, which is “the feeling of being inside a story, completely involved and accepting the world and events of the story as real. It is the same immersion as that produced by a good book or movie, but in video games, the player is also an actor within the story”[2].

Brown & Cairns on the other hand do not go for a strict, narrow definition of immersion, but approach it as a dynamic, three-leveled procedure, which consists in the Player’s engagement, engrossment, and total immersion [3]. What is of interest here is total immersion, which is defined as Presence. Wirth et.al. regard Spatial Presence as “a two-dimensional construct. [Its] core dimension is the sensation of being physically situated within the spatial environment portrayed by the medium (“self-location”). The second dimension refers to the perceived possibilities to act: An individual who is experiencing Spatial Presence will perceive only those action possibilities that are relevant to the mediated space, but will not be aware of actions that are linked to her/his real environment [the manipulation of game controls]. However, the list of phenomena defining Spatial Presence does not need to include the user’s experience of nonmediation, i.e., the deactivation of cognitive information that defines a given situation as a media exposure [in other words the acknowledgement that we play a game is compatible with Spatial Presence]”[4].

Moving on from these definitions, the fact remains that the immersion of the player as a (usually advertised) feature of games is in opposite terms to, and negatively influenced by meta-thinking (i.e. thinking as a being outside the game world). As was explained above, total, tautological-level immersion is contrary to the contemporary concept of video-gaming, as well as our machines’ capabilities.

Role-playing games in general are on especially bad terms with meta-thinking, since immersion in a role is a desired effect of engagement with the game, explicitly implied in the genre title. In fact, in tabletop RPGs, meta-thinking from players is frowned upon in many a rulebook. The fact, however, that computer RPGs implement on the very least the Restart mechanism, is the first crack in the immersion armor. From there on, whatever detracts from the Player’s suspension of disbelief (as the immersion in the game world can alternatively be called), obviously expands the cracks.

The interesting thing is that we consider meta-knowledge an enemy of immersion because we take the Character’s way of gathering knowledge to be similar to our own, and restricted by the same things. In other words, we tend to consider meta-knowledge about the game world to be “realistically” unobtainable by a Character, because a Player cannot obtain (to our knowledge at least) meta-knowledge about the world she lives in, namely the real world. She may well make assumptions made on probability, intuition, or any other kind of prediction, yet she can never be sure about some future actions, unless she performs them, unless they transform from future to past events. More important than the meta-knowledge content, however, is the mode of acquiring it. A Player (or a human in general) cannot acquire (to our knowledge at least) knowledge from a source that is not part of the real world; we probably cannot even think of a way of how this could happen, apart from nesting our world as a game world of a higher order “real world” (which only transfers the problem to another level, and does not solve it), or doing a similar correspondence. Thus, we tend to suppose that this kind of “knowledge-source” restriction applies also to the game world, mostly because we just cannot think of an out-of-the-world way that we can obtain it, and consequently, if our Character obtains knowledge through meta-thinking, our suspension of disbelief weakens.

The meta-thinking essence of Save/Load/Restart mechanisms

As mentioned above, the Save/Load/Restart mechanisms are one of the earlier and most integrated meta-thinking (“I know that I can try again and again, that this is a part of the game world’s structure”) features of electronic games. First and foremost, they are obviously grounded, in the purest sense, in replayability; if a game could not even be replayed it would be a product which is to be experienced only once, losing much in the way of long term value (imagine that you only have one try on the game – who would invest in an experience that could well end before you could get to know the basic mechanics?).

These mechanisms are integrated in the game, as behind-the-scenes mechanisms, ones that are non-perceivable by an entity belonging to the world in question, just like dice rolls, and exact numerical stats and skill values. Knowing that one can always load a previous version of the world, opens up possibilities to the player which are unimaginable to a denizen of a world that does not contain such mechanisms “in front of the scenes”. It is quite probable that human beings would behave much differently if they had the option of loading a previous version of the world, with them retaining the knowledge of what happened in the temporal space between save and load, taking more chances, optimizing (as far as their goals are concerned) their actions and choices. In a lesser degree, the knowledge of how other world mechanisms work would also affect the behaviour. Imagine that we knew what dice is rolled about the outcome of an action we can take in the real world, and what exact modifier would be the result of any supplementary action we could make to influence the result of that primary action.

Save/Load can be used in two ways: a. to break up the gaming experience in manageable temporal segments, in which case the course through the game is fragmented, but fragments do not overlap with one another, and b. to re-experience a temporal snapshot of the game world, in which case the the course through the game is again fragmented, but this time the fragments overlap with one another. The overlapping that occurs in the second case, can be translated into player meta-knowledge about the game world, a knowledge that is non-existent in a world of perceived objective temporal linearity.

Player as the meta-thinking accumulator of knowledge
In games with normal Save/Load/Restart mechanisms, accumulation of knowledge about the game world usually happens via successive “passes” of it with a multitude of Player incarnations. What I mean here with “incarnation” is the combination of in-game Player vessels (be it different Characters or just the same one being loaded again from a previous save file/point) and the Player personality, experience, and knowledge. An incarnation thus is the sum of: i. shell (the Character) and ii. driving force/invoked consciousness (the Player). The Player is an entity that by default can not interact directly with the game world, being able to do so only via the Character, which in the case of loading/restarting may, from the standpoint of an in-game entity, be the same being that existed in the pre-load/pre-restart game world state (since from in-game these mechanisms are imperceptible). But in fact, each Character incarnation is a vehicle for accumulation of knowledge/experience about the world and its mechanics. It follows that the Character (i.e. the shell) can be considered as a tool which is unrestricted by temporal restrictions, gradually turning the Player entity from an explorer-of-a-newfound-land to a citizen-in-secret of the world. Each of the Character incarnations is, from a phenomenological point of view, the same entity ontologically, crystallizing each time in a more knowledgeable entity aspect. In the end, trial and error reign supreme as a mode of knowing the in-game world, at least in traditional cRPGs.

An interesting thought is that after loading a part of the game that we have already been through previously, a strange deja-vu would not be amiss to both the Character and the NPCs participating in any sort of interaction (conversation, combat, etc) with it, any interaction that had already taken place before loading. This, however, is something quite weird to be implemented, it being antithetical to the base meaning of Save/Load: that you load the world as it exactly was on the moment of saving – obviously games with elements of randomness in each loading are a different case. That exactness is supposed to include everything shell-wise (even the Character’s journal/stats/choices) apart from the Player, who is now (after loading) empowered with the knowledge of a situation (with previously unfavorable outcome usually, but not always so – for instance there are times in which we load to experience the outcome of a different conversation option) via a new incarnation.

The interesting thing about the Player is his being an entity that, besides the in-game-world experience avenue, also collects power/knowledge/understanding of the game world through the Save/Load/Restart mechanisms, as well as through out-of-game resources. It is an entity that can change without spending any temporal currency in-game, something quite unfathomable from a real-life point of view. For how could anyone change in any aspect, if no time was consumed towards this change? It is a truth, that in order for a being to change in even the most non-significant part of itself, it would have to experience something (mentally or otherwise). This something, in order to be experienced, must be placed upon a temporal terrain, since we cannot make a thought in a zero quantity temporal space. Even an apparently spontaneous thought takes an infinite-small amount of time to form itself and to be registered by the thinker. Or, in other words, we cannot think of/about anything without this thinking taking us even an infinite-small amount of time. Thus appears a paradox, from the in-game perspective: there is no “material” impact emerging from the accumulation of knowledge via the meta-thinking avenues ( in other words, no currency of any kind is traded for knowledge), aside from certain niche cases (Dark Souls for instance, or Darkest Dungeon), and apart from player time – a currency whose concept is beyond the game world, or rather, outside it.

Tangential upon the previous discussion is also the concept of min-maxing, namely optimizing the Character, stat-wise, and/or the party, member-wise. Creating an optimized character means essentially that you know what skills/stats/build are necessary/obligatory for finishing the game, or even for experiencing most of its content. This knowledge obviously comes from either previous experience with the game world, or from out-of-game sources. Min-maxing, as a concept, is pure, cold rationality; all aesthetic, emotional, or just whimsical preferences of the Player are ignored in favour of an almost cynical efficiency. Adopting this concept reveals a Player mindset which possibly favours optimization of their playing time, the least challenge possible (even in hard difficulty levels), and generalizing, probably favours solid goals and their overcoming, over a fluid and somehow intuitively articulated experience of the game world. Min-maxers may well be modernity incarnated, as far as video-games players go.

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Notes:
[1]: http://www.irontowerstudio.com/
[2]: Fundamentals of Game Design, Ernest, 2010
[3]: A Grounded Investigation of Game Immersion, Brown & Cairns, 2004 (link)
[4]: A Process Model of the Formation of Spatial Presence Experiences, Wirth et.al., 2007 (link)